The 2023 Tour de France has all the ingredients of a classic: two leading protagonists ready to tear lumps out of each other in reigning champion Jonas Vingegaard and the deposed Tadej Pogacar; entertaining multi-talented stage hunters Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe and Tom Pidcock; the great Mark Cavendish chasing a historic 35th stage win; all facing a brutal route with 56,000m of climbing and four summit finish.
The Tour began in the Spanish Basque country on Saturday 1 July, where Adam Yates edged twin brother Simon to win the opening stage, and these hilly routes will throw open the yellow jersey to a wide range of contenders. The race crosses the French border for some flat stages and an early jaunt into the high Pyrenees, where the Col du Tourmalet awaits. The peloton takes on the Puy de Dome volcano on its journey across France towards the Jura Mountains and the Alps, and it is in the mountains that this Tour will ultimately be decided. It all ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday 23 July.
Here is a stage-by-stage guide to how the race will unfold.
Stage 1: Bilbao to Bilbao, 182km
The 2023 Tour de France starts outside Bilbao’s iconic Guggenheim Museum, and winds north to the Bay of Biscay coastline before returning to the city where the stage winner will take the yellow jersey. This 182km opening stage is a hilly route with 3,000m of climbing featuring five categorised ascents, of which the final two are sharp and testing: they are tough enough to shake off the dedicated sprinters and open up early glory for the best puncheurs – those riders with the legs to get over short climbs and the power to surge away on the other side.
The profile of this stage is a great choice by organisers as it could suit just about anyone, from the speed of Wout van Aert to the climbing strength Tom Pidcock or Simon Yates – even two-time champion Tadej Pogacar.
Stage 2: Vitoria Gastiez to Saint Sebastian, 209km
The peloton will head east from Bilbao, touching more picturesque Basque coastline before arriving at the finish in San Sebastian. At more than 200km this is the longest stage of the 2023 Tour and, with the sizeable Jaizkibel climb (8.1km, 5.3% average gradient) shortly before the finish, this is even more tough on the legs than the first day. Another puncheur with the climbing strength to get over the steeper hills can capitalise, like two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe.
Stage 3: Amorebieta to Bayonne, 187km
Stage three starts in Spain and ends in France, and the finale in Bayonne is ripe for a bunch sprint. Mark Cavendish will get his first shot of this race at trying to win a historic 35th Tour de France stage, but he will be up against a stacked field including former QuickStep teammate Fabio Jakobsen and the awesome speed of Wout van Aert. It will be fascinating to get a first glimpse of how the power riders stack up.
Stage 4: Dax to Nogaro, 182km
Another flat day and an even faster finish in store on the Circuit Paul Armagnac, a race track in Nogaro. The 800m home straight will almost certainly tee up a showdown between the Tour’s serious fast men.
Stage 5: Pau to Laruns, 163km
The first major mountains of the Tour come a little earlier than usual, as the peloton heads up into the high Pyrenees on day five. The Col de Soudet (15km, 7.2%) is one of the toughest climbs of the race and rears up halfway through this 163km route from Pau to Laruns. The category one Col de Marie Blanque (7.7km, 8.6%) guards the finish 20km out, and holds bonus seconds for those first over the top to incentivise the major contenders to come to the fore and fight it out.
Stage 6: Tarbes to Cauterets, 145km
This has the potential to be a thrilling day: the 145km route takes on the double trouble of the category one Col d’Aspin (12km, 6.5%) followed by the monstrous hors categorie Tourmalet (17.1km, 7.3%), before a fast ascent and a final climb to the summit finish at Cauterets (16km, 5.4%).
It is a day with several possible outcomes. If the yellow jersey is on the shoulders of a fast puncheur at the start then it may well be transferred to one of the general classification contenders by the end, should they decide to fight for the stage win. Then again, a breakaway could be allowed to escape which would open up victory – and perhaps the yellow jersey – to an outsider. The last time the Tour finished in Cauterets in 2015, breakaway specialist Rafal Majka surged clear of his fellow escapers to win. Keep an eye on Ineos’s Tom Pidcock, who could use the long, fast descent from the Tourmalet summit to speed to the front, as he did before winning atop Alpe d’Huez last year.
Stage 7: Mont de Marsan to Bordeaux, 170km
The first week of racing finishes in the Tour’s second most visited city, Bordeaux, and it’s a third flat day for the sprinters to contest. Much will depend on who has best preserved their legs through the high mountains when they come to this tight, technical finish on the banks of the Garonne river in the city centre.
Stage 8: Libourne to Limoges, 201km
A long, hilly day will see the peloton head 201km east from Libourne outside Bordeaux to Limoges. The lumpy stage should suit a puncheur but it is not a particularly taxing set of climbs – only three are categorised and the toughest of those is just 2.8km at 5.2%. So could a determined team carry their sprinter to the finish and the stage win? Look out for Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, superstars with the all-round talent to conquer the climbs and still finish fast.
Stage 9: Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat to Puy de Dome, 184km
The final stage before the relief of the first rest day is relatively flat and gentle – until a brutal finish atop the iconic Puy de Dome volcano, a 13.3km drag at a gruelling 7.7% average gradient that last appeared in the Tour in 1988. The summit finish will require a serious climber’s legs to clinch the stage win, and the general classification contenders may well let a breakaway get ahead and fight for that prize.
Rest day: Clermont-Ferrand, Monday 10 July.
Stage 10: Parc Vulcania to Issoire, 167km
The race resumes in the centre of France from Vulcania – a volcano-themed amusement park – where riders will embark on a hilly 167km route through the Volcans d’Auvergne regional park, finishing down in the small town of Issiore. With five categorised climbs, including the sizeable Col de Guery (7.8km at 5%) and the Croix Saint-Robert (6km at 6.3%), it will be a draining ride with virtually no sustained flat sections, and a long descent to the finish town. It looks like a good day to plot something in the breakaway, as the big GC contenders save their legs for bigger challenges to come.
Stage 11: Clermont Ferrand to Moulins, 180km
The final flat stage before the hard Alpine climbs will present an opportunity for those fast men who managed to haul themselves through the Pyrenees to get here – although there is still some climbing to be done including three category-four leg-sappers along the 180km route. The day begins in the university city of Clermont-Ferrand before the riders wind north and then east to Moulins, a small town on the Allier river. Any breakaway is likely to be reeled by those teams with dedicated sprinters eyeing their only opportunity for a stage win between the two rest days.
Stage 12: Roanne to Belleville-en-Beaujolais, 169km
The race caravan will shift east to start stage 12 in Roanne in the Loire region, before taking a 169km route to Belleville, situated on the Saone river north of Lyon. This has been categorised as a hilly or medium mountain stage, but it might feel harder than that by the time the peloton reaches the foot of the fifth categorised climb of the day, the Col de la Croix Rosier (5.3km at 7.6%). That should be enough to put off the best puncheurs like Van der Poel and Van Aert, because the stage winner will need strong climbing legs. The GC riders will want to conserve energy, so expect a breakaway to stay clear and fight amongst themselves.
Stage 13: Chatillon-Sur-Chalaronne to Grand Colombier, 138km
The first of three brutal stages that could decide the destiny of this year’s yellow jersey is only relatively short – 138km – but will provide a stern enough test to reveal any weaknesses in the major contenders. The peloton will enjoy a relatively flat and gentle first 75km from Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne before entering the Jura Mountains. A short climb and fast descent precedes the big climax: all 17.4km (7.1%) of the Grand Colombier providing an epic summit finish. This could be another day for a breakaway away to get free, but the overall contenders like Pogacar and Vingegaard will also fancy stage glory and the chance to stamp their authority on the race.
Stage 14: Annemasse to Morzine, 152km
Part two of this triple header of mountain stages sees the peloton ride into the Alps with a 152km route from Annemasse to Morzine ski resort. Three tough category one climbs line the road to the hors categorie Col de Joux Plane (11.6km at 8.5%), a brutally steep grind where bonus seconds await the first few over the top – and stage victory is the prize at the bottom. This is another potential spot for yellow jersey fireworks.
Stage 15: Les Gets to Saint Gervais, 180km
The last ride before the final rest day will take the peloton further east into the Alps, towards the French border with Italy. The 179km day is almost constantly up and down, with a fast descent before the final two climbs, and the summit finish atop Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc will require strong climbing legs once more.
Rest day: Saint-Gervais Mont-Blanc, Monday 17 July.
Stage 16: Individual time trial from Passy to Combloux, 22km
This year’s home stretch begins with the only time trial of the race: a short, relatively flat 22km from Passy to Combloux in the shadow of Mont Blanc. The route includes one categorised climb, the steep but short Cote de Domancy (2.5km at 9.4%). This stage is unlikely to decide the yellow jersey or podium spots, but there is an opportunity here to make up crucial seconds for those that need them.
Stage 17: Saint Gervais to Courchevel, 166km
Put Wednesday 19 July in the diary: this will surely be the most brutal day of the entire Tour de France and it could be decisive. The 166km route features four big climbs, the last of which offers up this year’s Souvenir Henri Desgrange for the first rider over the highest point of the race. To get there the riders must endure a 28.1km slog averaging 6% gradient to the top of the Col de la Loze, towering in the clouds 2,304m above sea level. There are bonus points seconds up here too, before a short descent down to the finish at Courchevel.
A breakaway will probably form, but can they last the distance? Whatever happens up the road, the fight for the yellow jersey will be fierce – only the strongest handful of riders will be able to stand the pace and this will likely be the day that the 2023 winner is effectively crowned.
Stage 18: Moutiers to Bourg en Bresse, 186km
After a potentially explosive stage 17, stage 18 is classified as “hilly” but is really a relatively sedate 185km which the sprinters are likely to contest if their teams can haul in the inevitable breakaway. The big question is whether there will be many sprinters left in the peloton after such a demanding set of stages in the Alps. For those fast men still in the race, the descent into Bourg-en-Bresse precedes a technical finish, with roundabouts and a sharp corner before a swinging right-hand turn on to the home straight where the stage will be won and lost.
Stage 19: Moirans-en-Montagne to Poligny, 173km
Another flat day gives a further opportunity for those sprinters left in the field, as the peloton travels 173km from Moirans, near Grenoble, north to Poligny. The general classification contenders will be happy to rest their legs before one final push to Paris.
Stage 20: Belfort to Le Markstein, 133km
The final competitive stage of the Tour is a 133km ride from Belfort to Le Markstein ski resort in the Vosges mountains, and it offers just enough for one final attack to steal the yellow jersey, should the overall win still be on the line. The last two climbs of the day are both steep category one ascents: first the Petit Ballon (9.3km, 8.1%) followed by the Col du Platzerwasel (7.1km at 8.4%). Whoever is wearing yellow just needs to hang on to the wheel of their fiercest rival here, and that should be enough to see them home.
Stage 21: Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines to Paris Champs-Elysees, 115km
As is tradition, the peloton will transfer to Paris and ride a truce to the Champs-Elysees. The stage will start at France’s national velodrome, home of cycling for the 2024 Paris Olympics. It will finish with one final sprint: Cavendish has won four times in Paris and it would be a fitting way to end the race that has defined his career if he were to repeat the feat one last time. And once the race is done, the winner of the 2023 Tour de France will be crowned.